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Over the last few days, observers wondered how Vladimir Putin would use Russia’s May 9 Victory Day observance to escalate the war in Ukraine. Annex the Donbas? Declare total war and full mobilization? Launch a new offensive in the north to take out Kyiv?

Or just whine? That appears to be Putin’s choice, as he oversaw a muted celebration and vented the same rationalizations he’s used since 2014:

President Vladimir V. Putin used his Victory Day speech on Monday to try to channel Russian pride in defeating Nazi Germany into support for this year’s invasion of Ukraine. But contrary to some expectations he did not make any new announcements signaling a mass mobilization for the war effort or an escalation of the onslaught.

Mr. Putin, speaking in Moscow’s Red Square on Russia’s most important secular holiday, marking the anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II, restated his past claims that attacking Ukraine was “inevitable” and “the only correct decision.” He said Russian troops in eastern Ukraine were fighting “on their land,” an indication that Mr. Putin had no plans to relinquish control of the territory his forces had taken in recent months.

Notably, Putin even gave Orwell a brief rest — at least somewhat. Defeat was not turned into victory, even if the victims of Putin’s ethnic cleansing still got cast as “Nazis”:

It was, as expected, a call to battle using rhetoric slandering Ukraine’s defenders as “Nazis” while evoking Russia’s victorious World War II past — perhaps the most unifying element of the country’s diverse identity. But the speech was also conspicuous for what it did not include.

Mr. Putin did not try to frame any part of the Ukraine war as a “victory,” offering no signal of an imminent end to the conflict. His army’s efforts have fallen well short of expectations: They have been vanquished around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital; pushed back in the northeast; and are making only sporadic gains in the Donbas, the eastern region Russia now says it is focused on.

CNN’s Nic Robertson was taken aback by Putin’s focus in the speech. “I was struck by the way that he referred at least to the battlezone… as Donbas, rather than the whole of Ukraine,” Robertson noted in a quick update. Their military analyst Nicholas Drummond also remarked that the entire event seemed “very low key.” The New York Times at the same link above also reported that Putin notably did not ring the nuclear bell, although he had plenty of gripes about the US and NATO:

The Russian leader did not renew his implicit threats of nuclear war, after warning late last month that countries that “create a strategic threat to Russia” during the war in Ukraine could expect “retaliatory strikes” that would be “lightning fast.”

Mr. Putin did lash out at the United States, as he has in the past, depicting America as the true aggressor and Russia as a stronghold of patriotism and “traditional values.”

That in itself is notable, although it could have been due to a last-minute change dictated by weather rather than strategy. The original plans for the parade included a flyover of dozens of military planes, including the Russian “doomsday” air platform. That would have served as a sotto voce threat, and its last-minute cancellation may have left Putin with little time to adjust his speech.

Still, he hasn’t exactly played coy with nuclear threats over the last few weeks. Something certainly has changed; perhaps someone reminded Putin that he’s not the only one with nukes in the past few days, and not the only nuclear power that can talk sotto voce. Regardless of the reason, this Victory Day speech sounds more like Tactical Retreat Day, at best.

We’ll talk more about that this morning, I’ll be filling in for our pal Hugh Hewitt on his syndicated radio show, airing from 6-9 am ET, live from the home studio deep in the heart of Texas! We will have a great lineup of guests and regular contributors:

  • Jim Geraghty
  • Salena Zito
  • Josh Kraushaar

We’ll also take your calls to the show at 800-520-1234, and you can watch the show live at The Hughniverse. There’s a great chat room that goes with it, and lots of original content in the troll-free websurfing experience for subscribers. The audio also streams at HughHewitt.com.